Pentagon chief’s agenda
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced his resignation from the Barack Obama administration last week, which came as a surprise to many in Washington. The Republican senator from Nebraska will stay in his position until a new appointee is selected by the White House and confirmed by Congress.
What must the next defense secretary be prepared to deal with on the Korean Peninsula? First, he or she will likely see the next series of North Korean nuclear and ballistic missiles tests. These may demonstrate Pyongyang’s crossing of a new technology threshold such as warhead miniaturization, a uranium-based test, more accurate ballistic missiles or nuclear fusion capabilities. This provocation could come in response to the next set of U.S.-ROK military exercises. It could come in response to UN Security Council actions on North Korean human rights abuses. It could come in response to the opening of the American movie “The Interview” this holiday season. Or, it may come without a pretext of Western hostility and simply after Kim Jong-un has secured summit visits and benefits from either Russia or China (though Russia seems more likely right now given Chinese pique).
In any event, the next defense secretary must be prepared to meet these provocations with concrete measures that acknowledge the necessity of deterring a nuclear North Korea. This includes deploying state-of-the-art missile defense systems on the peninsula, including the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense System, as well as encouraging South Korea to link up its missile defense assets to the U.S. regional system. I understand the controversy surrounding these ideas. Some see them as ill-advised because they will offend the Chinese and will be quite expensive.
But the key criteria for this decision should be to do what is best to protect Korea’s national security for the long-term. South Korea should not pursue missile defense as a favor to the United States, but because it is in Seoul’s interest. The cost of new defense systems will of course be expensive, but pennies cannot be pinched when it comes to national security, either by the Blue House or the National Assembly.
The next U.S. defense secretary must also work to mend Japan-Korea relations. When Park Geun-hye entered office, she talked about the paradox of political and historical tension in Asia amidst a backdrop of interdependent economic prosperity. Nowhere is this paradox more apparent than in the relationship between Asia’s two most important advanced industrialized democracies. The bilateral relationship between Seoul and Tokyo, and the three-way U.S.-Japan-Korea relationship, should in the next secretary’s eyes be the most reliable source of stability in Asia. Others in the Obama administration might argue that the anchor is the U.S.-China relationship, but I would argue that U.S.-China relations are the effect - not the cause - of stability. That is, a stable Washington-Beijing relationship equates with regional peace, but the best influence on this relationship is a strong U.S.-Japan-Korea relationship. When the allies are together, this provides the best environment in which to welcome as well as shape China as a rule-abiding rising power, rather than a revisionist one.
So, with the 50th anniversary of Japan-South Korea normalizing diplomatic relations only seven months away, the next U.S. defense secretary must work to close the gap between the allies in the form of the completion of the information-sharing agreement (GSOMIA), military parts servicing agreement (ACSA), a high tempo of trilateral consultations, and eventually, a collective defense statement among the three allies. Yet, this all must be done with a light touch, not American pressure, given sensitivities in Korea.
Finally, the next defense secretary is likely to see traditional defense, deterrence and denuclearization policies toward North Korea supplemented by a new element: human rights. The United Nations General Assembly resolution in November condemning the North Korean leadership for crimes against humanity, which are potentially referable to the International Criminal Court, has spooked Pyongyang.
The regime has, of course, seen many UN Security Council sanctions for its nuclear and missile tests, and survived them. But it has never seen the international community so openly critical of the regime’s treatment of its own people. In many ways, this is more threatening to the regime’s legitimacy. One hundred and eleven nations voted in favor of the resolution.
Moreover, the 55 abstentions represented a principled position among some UN member states against country-specific General Assembly resolutions. Hence, they are not to be interpreted as votes in favor of North Korea.
Should the United States ever return to the negotiating table with North Korea, either bilaterally or in the six-party format, the discussion will no longer center solely on denuclearization but will have as an equal component addressing human rights abuses in the country. The quid pro quos will no longer be just freezes on nuclear activity in exchange for food or energy, but demonstrable improvements in human rights, including the inspection of gulags, eradication of slave labor and improved treatment of refugees, among other issues.
*The author is professor at Georgetown University and Senior Adviser and Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.